Oops, We Did it Again

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I was at the first people power revolution in 1986, and it was truly glorious. The Filipinos who massed on Epifanio de los Santos Ave, or EDSA, were genuinely brave, far more than the crowds gathered last week on the same highway. Ferdinand Marcos was a tough character, and he had a military machine behind him. Who would have thought a group of nuns could vanquish him?It was a gentle, inspiring revolution—but it has developed into a bad Philippine habit. Four months after Marcos fled the Philippines, a former political ally declared himself head of state and, with some military backing, took over the swank Manila Hotel. On the second night of that comic, two-day revolt, I held a cocktail party for visiting family members. Afterward, we climbed into the car and toured the revolution. My family enjoyed roaming the fortified hotel with machine-gun toting soldiers and opportunistic, barong-clad politicians wearing heavy gold jewelry. In the next three years, a string of coup attempts nearly toppled the government of Corazon Aquino. This has been one of the unintended and unfortunate legacies of People Power: that a coup, popular or otherwise, is considered a legitimate—glorious even—way to transfer power.Many Filipinos will be proud that last week's mass display of public indignation rid them of a President who was none-too-bright, unreliable after lunch and, if the testimony in Joseph Estrada's Senate trial is true, had the moral scruples of a two-bit Tondo hustler. But as with Woodstock II (or III), the sequel to 1986's People Power revolution is an echo with a hollow yet distinctly nasty tone. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos cast presidential no-confidence votes with their feet—an act that doubled as an impromptu referendum on their constitution and all the institutions that comprise the Philippines' democracy. The system doesn't work! Hurrah!There are several ways to explain last week's popular putsch. The first is that Filipinos are exceedingly impatient. Throughout the Senate trial, it was apparent that Estrada retained enough clout, and popular support, to avoid being removed from office. But instead of allowing him to prevail in these tainted hearings, after which the democratic system could digest the votes of the various Senators and eventually throw them out of office, Filipinos decided to take to the streets. But this argument is flawed: Filipinos in fact are among the most patient people in Asia. The original People Power revolution, for example, was the culmination of more than two years of anti-Marcos street rallies. The second interpretation of events is that the people were driven by moral indignation. The forces of righteousness, represented by Corazon Aquino and Catholic prelate Jaime Cardinal Sin, rallied the masses against a President up to his neck in booze, broads and below-the-counter business deals. This analysis has appeal in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, and Aquino and Sin knew it. The more disturbing, albeit most plausible, theory of what transpired involves a conspiracy. As a macho former movie star, Estrada was held in contempt by Manila's business aristocracy. Mrs. Aquino is from landed gentry. Cardinal Sin has an understandable aversion to a President who boasts of mistresses and illegitimate offspring. In the mid-'80s, the Elite and the Church banded together to help organize Manila's masses against Marcos, a moment of triumph they have never forgotten. The fact that a high percentage of Filipinos loved Estrada was exasperating. Even more inconvenient was his grip on the Senate, which seemed to ensure that he would stay in power. The solution: to bring hundreds of thousands of Filipinos onto Manila's streets. But the Philippine polity is 77 million-strong. Was this a revolution of the Filipino people—or of a few hundred thousand Filipinos prompted by a few hundred powerful individuals?Aquino tore up the Philippine constitution when she ousted Marcos, claiming he had rewritten it too many times to suit his dictatorship. That was true, but her act planted a seed of constitutional disregard. On several occasions in the 1990s, Aquino and Sin called people onto the streets to defend the new constitution. The reason: Fidel Ramos, Aquino's successor, was allegedly trying to amend the charter to allow himself a second term. Aquino and Sin didn't like that idea, and they used a mini-People Power movement to stop it. Their rallying cry: the constitution has to be respected.But when circumstances changed, so, apparently, did those values. On the crowded pavement of EDSA last week, Aquino and Ramos urged Filipinos to disregard the constitution—not because it was flawed, but because it wasn't getting rid of Estrada quickly enough. Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, another member of the Elite, referred to herself as Commander in Chief even before Estrada resigned—and then took the presidential oath, vowing to uphold the constitution.Perhaps this represents confusion between democratic passions and the rule of law. More likely, though, People Power has become its own institution, and one that seems monopolized by a certain clique. I spent many days in crowds like the ones on EDSA last week. They were the nicest mobs I have ever been in—they gave mobs a good name. People Power has become an acceptable term for a troubling phenomenon: one that used to be known as mob rule.